Careers - Landscape skills

Skills in community engagement, sustainability and IT are among the new essentials for amenity horticulture and landscaping, Rachel Anderson hears.

Train the trainers: staff at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh need the right training to teach their students and the general public - image: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Train the trainers: staff at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh need the right training to teach their students and the general public - image: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Amenity horticulture and landscaping - designing, building and maintaining planting schemes in green spaces such as parks, gardens and sports pitches - have, like many other industries, been through the mill during the past five years.

Budgets have been cut and new business has often been difficult to come by and maintain. But while this has been a trying period for the sector it has also helped it to evolve.

Stripped of its armour, it has had to remind itself of what is important - people. This includes both those who are in the community in which it is working as well as the staff members who are carrying out the work.

Matt O'Conner, director of the grounds maintenance firm John O'Conner, says: "Engagement with residents and the local community has increased during the last three-to-five years. The job is still the same but when a contract goes out to tender people are actually taking the time to recognise the ultimate customers. The ultimate customers of our housing contracts are the residents.

"We need to be sure that our service is in keeping with their expectations. They want to be involved, and quite rightly so. As garden maintenance people we need to be mindful that we are coming into people's private living area and maintaining that respectfully. So we now have community champions among our teams on some of our housing contracts.

"In community areas we are very visible. We need to be clear and identify who we are as well as for whom we are working and we have to answer questions such as: 'Why are we cutting this grass or this shrub?'"

O'Conner also points out that in some lottery-funded projects in the parks sector there are now clauses in the contracts that refer to community engagement. "We have staff members in certain contracts whose role is to educate and inform the public about what the lottery project is all about."

Teaching engagement

Steve Terry is the landscape and garden design course manager at Writtle College in Chelmsford, Essex. His students are now taught how to engage with local residents and some of them were actually due to visit the college the week before Easter (2014) to view the students' presentations.

"There is an opportunity in the second year of our undergraduate scheme to actively engage with residents so that they are part of the design process. That helps with ownership so that the residents feel they have contributed," says Terry. "We have, for example, been trying to turn part of a street near Tottenham Court Road into an urban garden area.

"There's always redevelopment and design opportunities in places like London because they are very expensive areas that are highly desirable for development. Yet there are people and communities who have lived there for generations who sometimes don't have a voice. We try and encourage all kinds of communities in our projects and engage with all people."

He adds: "The experience of meeting people, being very respectful of people's needs and tactfully asking questions also gives our students quite advanced people skills."

Tim Hughes from the RHS Garden Wisley School of Horticulture points out that professional gardeners also need to have good people skills these days. "What has changed, especially in public gardens, is that the skill of gardeners is also to communicate with visitors - taking groups around and giving them a guided tour," he says. "People skills are becoming increasingly important."

RHS head of education and learning Sarah Cathcart adds that the public is in general now more interested in horticulture than previously - and for a number of reasons.

"A wider range of generations are interested in gardening. For instance, there's a rise in young families growing their own (fruit and vegetables) at home. There's also a rise in audience groups, perhaps through social media and television. All of these factors are adding to the momentum that we are experiencing," she says.

Given this increased interest in horticulture, it is unsurprising that more people want to learn about the subject. But both the RHS and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) have realised that their own staff need the right kind of training to teach their students and the public.

Cathcart says: "We found that our horticulturists who work in gardens were keen to teach workshops but, while they are experts in their subjects, they did not necessarily have the right kind of experience or confidence to do so."

She therefore teamed up with Leigh Morris, president of the Institute of Horticulture and head of learning at RBGE, to create a "train the trainers" course. Morris first started the course a few years ago and invited Cathcart along, who was so impressed that she also decided to jump on board.

"The first course that we (the RHS and RBGE) co-delivered was in Wisley in 2012 and since then it has certainly met a demand," says Cathcart. "We have already trained 40 staff at Wisley."

Morris adds: "The next step will be to put together an e-learning package and a printed book." He believes that, just as the public is using social media and the internet to find out more about gardening, gardeners will start to do more of their learning online.

Last year (2013), RBGE launched its own virtual learning environment, PropaGate Learning. The resource now boasts short films on 23 different horticultural skills - ranging from softwood cuttings to potting-on - that are used to support learners on a number of its courses and modules.

Morris hopes to use this e-learning platform for continuing professional development (CPD) at some point in the near future.

Developing IT skills

RHS horticultural courses manager Tim Hughes also points out that gardeners need to have good IT skills these days. "We are communicating more by email and managing people through appraisal forms and websites," he says. "All of our staff go through an induction process in these various IT packages."

Paul Cowell, a garden designer and landscape contractor for Surrey-based PC Landscapes, adds that computers now play a central part in garden design. "We still get hand-based designs, but mainly they are done by computer," he says.

"We have noticed a big change in the number of designs coming in from designers when we are building (their designs) for them. So they've done it for the speed. They were getting asked to redraw something and it was taking too long by hand."

Meanwhile, an increasing number of newly designed public gardens are being cared for by volunteers. Earlier this year (2014), the RHS revealed that its Britain in Bloom volunteers now look after 10 times more space than they did three years ago. For this reason, volunteers are also a new consideration for the industry.

Matt O'Conner, whose company John O'Conner won the principal award in the employer of the year category of the BALI National Landscape Awards last year, says he is now looking into procuring a course for volunteer management for the first time.

Terry from Writtle College adds: "Our students needs to know a lot about maintenance. We build that into their design projects so that they know how people might care for their garden and how they might encourage volunteers to work with professional bodies and councils so that their creation brings people together."

O'Conner makes sure that the green spaces his company manages are cared for in the correct way by conducting skills audits. "We look at what skills the staff have and build the training program around each contract and each individual, including personal development programmes," he explains. "It's all part of having a job well done."

Each company in the amenity and landscape horticulture sectors has its own method of carrying out its CPD, which is becoming increasingly important as work standards continue to improve. Many of the larger companies, such as ISS Facility Services Landscaping, have their own certified trainers who can teach their staff skills such as pesticide spraying or the operating of machinery.

Smaller companies also teach their own staff in house. However, when a certified trainer is necessary or when they do not have the requisite skills themselves, they are able to send their staff on short training and competency courses that are run by colleges or organisations such as BALI and the Institute of Groundsmanship.

Some companies are also joining forces with a range of other organisations to help to ensure that they deliver the correct training. O'Conner reveals that his Hertfordshire-based grounds maintenance firm worked for the first time with the RSPB this year to carry out a course in environmental habitat management.

"It's a new course that we have never done before," he adds. "So when we have areas with meadows, we are now looking at what invertebrates are left in the ground to improve biodiversity."

Safe and sustainable practices

The increasing importance of sustainable landscape practices is also being reflected in college courses. Sandra Nicholson, a senior lecturer in the School of Sustainable Environment at Writtle College, maintains: "Sustainability and biodiversity, climate change and community involvement and engagement are now very much part of today's undergraduate horticulture curriculum."

Ross Minterne, who is the training officer for ISS Facility Services Landscaping, reveals that approximately one-third of the company's staff has completed a spillage awareness course. He adds that, in addition to sustainability practices, health and safety procedures have also become of paramount importance to the industry as it continues to raise the bar.

"They (horticulture staff) have to take responsibility for looking after themselves and others around them, and so we are training our staff to take responsibility for their own actions," says Minterne. "Community landscaping used to be behind the times. It had a 'binder twine' mentality. That's changed."

He continues: "It has been a slow change but it is now all happening much faster because that is what the industry needs. People who previously just came to work to earn their money and then went home again are now having to come to work and be safe. The emphasis on safety has got to the point where there has to be no accidents."

Last year, ISS introduced "drive to zero" training modules, Minterne explains. This means that its staff are trained how to work safely and to help carry out the ISS "zero" reported accidents policy

"It's not just the culture on the ground. It's everyone (in the industry) moving forward," says Minterne. He explains that when ISS identifies a health and safety problem, it "does something about it."

The company's accident statistics showed, for example, that double-sided hedge cutters caused the highest number of injuries among its staff. Since January 2011, 23 such accidents had been recorded - 65 per cent of which were leg injuries. "So we took those hedge cutters out of our usage," says Minterne. "We only have one-sided ones now."

ISS also worked with a company named Cutsafe last year to develop and manufacture a piece of protective clothing to be worn by staff while using the hedge cutters.

Training at all levels

But it is not simply those who operate machinery who are becoming clued up on health and safety issues. Last year Paul Cowell, a past chairman of BALI, completed the Register of Landbased Operatives health and safety awareness training course and he has acquired a LISS (Landscape Industry Sector Scheme) card.

"I did these qualifications because we (PC Landscapes) work on some very large-scale commercial projects," he explains. "One project in particular was a contract for a large, national building and they required us to have health and safety measures in place.

He continues: "In my experience - from working with other people and other designers - it would be advantageous for other designers to undertake these health and safety courses to have more awareness of the process. If anyone is not operating safely, then they will be able to point it out to them and they'll have to take them seriously because there's a legal side to it."

The RHS's Hughes adds that biosecurity - controlling pests and pathogens - is an aspect of health and safety with which the industry needs to get to grips.

"We have some big biosecurity issues, such as controlling pests like the oak processionary moth and correctly dealing with plant imports," he says. "It is important that all staff members are kept up to date, especially if you are bringing visitors in. We are working with the Food & Environment Research Agency to introduce a better understanding of these issues."

The amenity horticulture and landscaping industry clearly has many new issues to consider - from nurturing the public's snowballing interest in horticulture to caring for the environment, the public and its own staff. However, its willingness to move with the times proves that it offers an exciting career to those considering a role in horticulture.

First steps

Groundsman career path

Straight from school, keen students can get a position with a club and embark on weekly one-day or block-release college courses for National/Scottish Vocational Qualifications in sports turf. These start with a basic first diploma through levels 2, 3 and 4 and the higher national diploma to a foundation degree in golf and sports turf management and a national diploma in sports turf and amenity horticulture. There is also a higher national certificate in sports turf.

Arboriculture career path

Beginners will often take short courses - usually an NPTC course - in chainsaw use, tree climbing or aerial rescue. The Royal Forestry Society certificate of arboriculture level 2 course is offered by several colleges over six months on day release. This can be followed by the technician's certificate in arboriculture. Specialist tree surgery courses are offered by a range of colleges and many amenity horticulture courses include tree surgery. Packaged courses include a three-year national diploma (BTEC), and a one-year NCH (arboriculture).

Parks career path

Apprenticeships last for three years and provide training in all aspects of working in a park. They offer NVQs at levels 1, 2 and 3. For those wanting further or higher education, qualifications start at BTEC, diploma and City & Guilds national certificate in horticulture, moving on to levels 2 or 3 national certificate and national diploma courses, BTEC higher national diplomas and bachelor of science courses in areas such as green-space management.

Grounds care career path

Some of the larger companies offer apprenticeships that combine formal diplomas such as NVQs with personal-skills training in teamwork, problem solving, communication and IT. Private contractors often learn their skills in the public sector first, working in local authority parks departments.

Landscape architect career path

You will need a degree, followed by a period of study at work, to fully qualify as a chartered landscape architect. You will also have to be a member of the Landscape Institute, the profession's qualifying authority and regulator.

Garden designer career path

Short courses, diplomas and distance learning are all available from various organisations, such as the RHS, the English Gardening School, the Garden Design School and the Oxford College of Garden Design. Horticultural colleges, including Capel Manor in Middlesex, Merrist Wood in Surrey and Writtle College in Essex also offer these courses.

Contractor career path

GCSEs in subjects such as geography, biology and arts can be useful for landscape construction. Many firms offer modern apprenticeships combining formal diplomas, such as NVQs, with personal skills training in teamwork, problem solving, communication and IT.

Gardener career path

You will need natural green fingers and a love of plants. Relevant qualifications range from NVQs to horticulture degrees, but your biggest asset is practical experience.

Head gardener career path

Head gardeners are usually practical gardeners with many years of experience working in gardens, ranging from privately-owned estates to National Trust properties. A formal qualification from a horticultural college is also a requirement.

Botanic garden curator

A strong plant knowledge is key to running botanic gardens, so professional horticultural qualifications are recommended, along with a period of work at a suitable garden - for example, RHS Garden Wisley or Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

For further details, please see

Work experience and apprenticeships

There are many ways to begin a career in the amenity horticulture and landscaping industries. People can start by getting some work experience, part-time or seasonal work and then gaining a qualification, or vice versa.

From diplomas and certificates to degrees and masters, there are many different education options, regardless of whether you want to become a professional gardener, garden designer, landscaper or groundsman.

Those who have just left school can start training by studying for a general diploma or a certificate in horticulture or land-based studies. These can be studied at different levels of intensity and can lead onto degree or masters courses.

RHS diplomas and certificates are particularly highly regarded by employers. Certain roles in the sector, such as agronomists or head groundsmen, usually require a degree-level qualification.

Most colleges incorporate some sort of work experience into their curriculum to make sure students gain some practical experience, making them more employable after leaving college.

Apprenticeships, funding for which is available for people who are aged between 16 and 24, are another way of gaining an education while being employed. Many employers are big fans of apprenticeships and some have even set up their own schemes.

Apprentices study part time and gain a qualification, such as diploma, either by travelling to college on a part-time basis or by studying online while working.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Sign up now
Already registered?
Sign in

Read These Next

Sargent's Solutions - How to reap rewards from static advertising

Sargent's Solutions - How to reap rewards from static advertising

Planted displays can draw new customers but they entail costs and commitment, writes Alan Sargent.

What do the latest developments in petrol and battery-powered chainsaws have to offer?

What do the latest developments in petrol and battery-powered chainsaws have to offer?

Manufacturers are improving battery and petrol models, with sales on the rise year on year, writes Sally Drury.



Myrtle is a tender shrub so it is a plant for milder gardens, but with our changing climate the limits are being pushed, says Miranda Kimberley.


The Horticulture Week Business Awards is now open for entries

Horticulture Jobs
More Horticulture Jobs


Build your business with the latest public sector tenders covering landscape, arboriculture, grounds care, production and kit supplies. To receive the latest tenders weekly to your inbox sign up for our Tenders Tracker bulletin here.

Are you a landscape supplier?

Horticulture Week Landscape Project Leads

If so, you should be receiving our new service for Horticulture Week subscribers delivering landscape project leads from live, approved, planning applications across the UK.

Horticulture Week Top 50 Landscape and maintenance contractors

See our exclusive RANKING of landscape and maintenance contractors by annual turnover plus the FULL REPORT AND ANALYSIS


Free to subscribers, the essential guide for professional plant buyers

Download your copy

Products & Kit Resources